Paula Gutlove and Gordon Thompson

On an October 13 speech about the present Ebola epidemic, Dr Margaret Chan, director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO), said: “When a deadly and dreaded virus hits the destitute and spirals out of control, the whole world is put at risk. Our 21st century societies are interconnected, interdependent, and electronically wired together as never before.”

Ebola demonstrates, as Dr Chan acknowledged, an often-ignored feature of the modern world. We are both interdependent and mutually vulnerable. None of us can enjoy our full potential for security unless all of us have at least a basic level of security. Those of us who are prosperous enjoy advantages, such as air travel, that create a shared vulnerability with those who are trapped by poverty or conflict. Liberia and Sierra Leone, front-line countries in the Ebola epidemic, suffer from both poverty and the lasting effects of violent conflict, having emerged from devastating civil wars only a decade ago. Unfortunately, their role as a breeding ground for infectious disease is not unique. In Syria, for example, violence is promoting infectious disease. Polio was eliminated in Syria in 1995 but returned in 2013 and has spread across opposition-controlled areas in the north and into Iraq. Syria is also experiencing outbreaks of other infectious diseases including measles, pertussis, rubella, and tuberculosis.

Governments and other major actors have finally acknowledged the Ebola epidemic as a global emergency. For example, the World Bank, spurred by its president, Dr Jim Yong Kim, has committed US$400 million to fighting Ebola. The success of such emergency efforts remains to be seen. To complement these efforts, it would be wise to draw some larger lessons and take appropriate, longer-term preventive actions. The key lesson is that, in an era of global interdependence and mutual vulnerability, people everywhere must have at least a basic level of security.

The concept of “human security” meets that need. The UN Development Program (UNDP) first set forth this concept in 1994, and the idea received considerable attention for a decade thereafter. In recent years, that attention has waned. Now that Ebola has given us a wake-up call, it would be prudent to revisit the concept of human security.

UNDP defined human security as the security of persons in seven domains: economic security (assured basic income); food security (physical and economic access to food); health security (relative freedom from disease and infection); environmental security (access to sanitary water supply, clean air and a non-degraded land system); personal security (security from physical violence and threats); community security (security of cultural identity); and political security (protection of basic human rights and freedoms). A basic level of security could be established across all of those domains. People whose conditions of life are above the basic level might live in comparative poverty. However, they would be able to plan and work for a better future for themselves, their families and their communities.

Key aspects of human security - its focus on human needs, its preventive orientation, and its holistic approach - are shared with the field of public health. Thus, programs in these two fields could be synergistic. WHO acknowledged that synergy by organizing a consultation on health and human security, held in Cairo in 2002. Principles established at that event would provide a basis for a renewed commitment to human security by WHO and other agencies, spurred by the present Ebola crisis. Also, WHO has supported the related concept of “health as a bridge for peace”, in which conflicting parties’ shared interest in public health can help to prevent or mitigate violent conflict.

Human security must, if it is to be a useful concept, bring added value. That can occur in at least four ways. First, human security can provide a clear and compelling objective for humanitarian work. Second, the preventive orientation of human security can stimulate forward-looking contingency planning. Third, human security emphasizes global interdependence and can therefore mobilize additional resources and new partnerships. Fourth, human security addresses interacting threats in multiple domains and can therefore stimulate holistic, comprehensive threat assessment and program planning.

Realization of the potential of human security could be pursued largely through existing organizations, including WHO and the World Bank. In each case, however, new organizational practices and priorities would be required. Substantial funding would be required, but much of that funding could be found by redirecting expenditures that are currently unproductive, or by tapping pools of under-used capital. For example, over the past decade the US government has spent trillions of dollars on unproductive or counter-productive military activities in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere. A fraction of that expenditure, properly directed to human-security programs in areas such as education, public health, and the empowerment of women, could be far more productive. As another example, US corporations have parked about $2 trillion of international profits overseas, hoping for a “tax holiday” that would allow them to bring these profits home.

Much of that capital could be productively invested in the developing world. In illustration, given an appropriate policy framework, there is great opportunity for profitable investment in off-grid rural electrification, using technologies such as photovoltaic cells and LED lights. Electricity could improve diverse aspects of rural life, including health, education, and economic development. An appropriate policy framework could ensure that private investment truly enhances human security.

The present Ebola epidemic is just one of many global challenges we will face over the coming years. Our collective response will determine the quality of life for all of us. One requirement is that each of us should have at least a basic level of security. Utilizing a human-security framework would guide us in creating policies and programs to meet that need.

Paula Gutlove and Gordon Thompson work at the Institute for Resource and Security Studies, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. They have advised WHO and other international organizations regarding health and human security, and health as a bridge for peace.–Asian Times Online